When I was an organizer with Metro Justice I helped with the statewide campaign to reform New York’s industrial development agency (IDA) system. IDA’s were set up to lure industrial businesses into an area with tax breaks. There are many instances around the state where the system actually does what is supposed to do but WAY too often the system just hands out totally unjustified tax subsidies to businesses. The system is a boon for well-connected businesses, netting them juicy tax breaks. I’ve documented those cases in this blog here and here and wrote up a study of the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency (COMIDA) entitled COMIDA Isn’t Spanish for Free Lunch.
These bogus tax giveaways are not just gross because they are morally wrong and stink of insider corruption, but these tax breaks deny much needed revenue to towns, cities and school systems that are struggling to close the budget gap.
My job was to recruit local business owners and local elected officials and it was pretty easy to get local restaurant owners to write letters to Senator Robach asking him why Mario’s should get a tax break while they have to pay all of their taxes. I also had success with local Town Supervisors and Council members who attended press conferences and signed onto letters. Brighton Town Supervisor Sandy Frankel and Brighton Councilmember Ray Tierney were notable in their leadership on the issue.
I met with Mr. Carballada to discuss the issue and show him the loss of revenue in Rochester due to these deals. I was taken aback by how dismissive he was of the issue. He told me that business representatives told him that the tax breaks were critical in their relocation decisionmaking. I pointed out that, of course that was what they would say, it’s their job to squeeze every penny out of government, but that actually, in study after study, businesses didn’t really look at tax breaks when they were making their decisions. Their main concern was the cost of energy, access to markets and productivity of the workforce.
Mr. Carballada’s response was to scold me for “arguing” with him.
I left thinking that Mr. Carballada was still wearing his Chamber of Commerce hat and hadn’t yet put on his government employee hat. Our meeting was early in his tenure, so to be fair to Mr. Carballada, I should give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he modified his ideological allegiance to the corporate world. Perhaps he developed a more critical consciousness about where government and businesses interests actually intersect and where they are at odds.
Or maybe he didn’t.
I have blogged here about the differential treatment that downtown developers and neighborhood residents receive from City Hall. Carlos Carballada’s has been in charge of neighborhood and business development. In my job as a community organizer I have been talking to store owners and the message is pretty mixed. Some of the local businesses say that they’ve had good luck taking advantage of City programs but others, particularly the Yemeni corner store owners are frustrated by the red tape, language barriers and attitudes they encounter at City Hall. And of course many other businesses are really upset about the new restrictions and fees that the City has enacted (I shop at Park Ave Pets). None of these folks were able to get special sessions of City Council called for their projects. Contrast that to the downtown development deals.
My work with neighborhood residents is also illustrative. Many residents have had success getting stuff done, but in each case its because they’ve identified a champion within City Hall that moves things forward for them. For those folks who are not able to locate somebody to advocate for them within the system, their experience is frustrating.
But Mr. Carballada really upset neighborhood residents when he eliminated the Neighbors Building Neighborhoods program. The NBN system was started by Mayor Johnson as a way to invite neighborhood leaders to the table to help identify city priorities and help with planning. As flawed as it was, the program had great potential to develop a collaborative dynamic between City Hall and the neighborhoods. Mayor Johnson’s instincts were truly democratic in this regard.
But Mr. Carballada ended the program. And many residents point to that move as symbolic of a shift in dynamics from a more collaboratively oriented Johnson administration to a more top-down Duffy administration. One resident told me that City Hall’s attitude now is “if it was a good idea we would have already thought of it.”
That’s probably going too far. I’ve had a bunch of excellent interactions with City Hall staff who have really listened to residents about the particular needs of the neighborhood. However, the overall shift in dynamics is undeniable and while it seems less true at the lower level of City Hall it is definitely more true at the leadership level.
I recall a local Brookings presentation about the local economy. Carlos Carballada was there and I asked a question about NYS revenue sharing. During the 70’s the state committed to sharing revenues with distressed cities. But within a few years the dollar amounts got frozen and inflation rendered the aid meaningless. I brought up the issue, pointing out that Rochester would be a lot better off if the state honored its commitment.
Carballada had never heard of the revenue sharing.
There was another guy in the panel who knew about the revenue sharing and corrected my information (my dates were wrong and I had pinned it on Pataki but it was Carey who started the freeze). That guy who understood how to work the system for the benefit of the city was Bill Johnson.
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